Seamus Perry

  • BuyPoet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar edited by Keith Sagar
    British Library, 340 pp, £25.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 7123 5862 0
  • BuyTed and I: A Brother’s Memoir by Gerald Hughes
    Robson, 240 pp, £16.99, October 2012, ISBN 978 1 84954 389 7

Among the many delights to be found in Roger Lonsdale’s New Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse is a squib by Thomas Holcroft, provoked by some disparaging remarks Voltaire made about Shakespeare. In fact, Voltaire was perfectly ready to concede that Shakespeare was possessed of real genius, though of a rough and ready kind, but in denying that he had ‘so much as a Spark of good Taste, or knew one Rule of the Drama’, and other such remarks, he scandalised what Gibbon once described as the ‘idolatry for the Gigantic Genius of Shakespeare which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman’. In the deft little fantasy that Holcroft produced in response, the hateful Frenchman is pictured attempting to assassinate Shakespeare, who is innocently asleep in a dell. The elves and fairies playing about him flee in horror as, having pilfered as many of Shakespeare’s gems as he can find, Voltaire suddenly turns nasty: seizing a knife, he ‘stabbed and stabbed, to make the theft secure’. Not that this does him any good:

Ungrateful man! But vain thy black design,
Th’attempt, and not the deed, thy hand defiled;
Preserved by his own charms and spells divine,
Safely the gentle Shakespeare slept and smiled.

Shakespeare remains untouchable, serenely away with the fairies, an outcome rigged from the start: the whole encounter has taken place in what is securely Shakespearean territory – an enchanted sylvan space where Voltaire was always going to be an off-comer and, like Satan padding about paradise, doomed to lose in the end.

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[*] The book was reviewed, appreciatively, by Tom Paulin in the LRB of 9 April 1992.

[†] It is an appendix to his book The Laughter of Foxes: A Study of Ted Hughes (2000).